Don’t know what to do besides eat your weight in festival food? The Observer staffers are Florida Strawberry Festival veterans and can help.
There’s so much to do at the Florida Strawberry Festival on any given day, it might be overwhelming to look at the schedule if you’re not a regular.
Fortunately for you, the Plant City Observer staff knows the festival like the backs of their hands. Here’s what the staffers like to do when they step onto the festival grounds every year:
One of the main reasons guests return year after year to the Florida Strawberry Festival is because the 11-day event doesn’t feel like a traditional fair, but rather offers a glimpse into a small, hometown life many only ever dream about. Much of its charm comes from its mass of volunteers. Instead of having a limited staff walking the grounds to answer questions or direct those in need toward their next destination, the festival has ambassadors. It’s a tradition President Paul Davis has often said both baffles and impresses fair programs throughout the country.
More than 2,500 people give up their time every single year to volunteer at the Florida Strawberry Festival. They want to be there and they genuinely hope that every single person that walks through the gates falls in love with Plant City by the time they leave. They open their hearts to strangers and few ever forget it. Because of those unique interactions I’ve long believed the festival is the perfect place to do one of my all-time favorite pastimes: people watch.
Locals frequently share traditions with families walking the festival grounds for the first time. If you pay attention, you’ll be shocked what advice you can pick up just by making the effort to be observant.
One of the best places to learn a bit of history at the festival is the Strawberry Queens’ Exhibit in Neighborhood Village. Red carpet lines the path through time as you can take a moment out of the heat to soak in some knowledge. The pictures paint a wonderful foundation for the history of the community, but if you stand still long enough you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the lives the queens and courts have touched over the years. Folks will often walk the exhibit with friends or family and point at the photos of women they know. Soon stories are shared — some comical, some heartwarming — and memories of the year one specific queen reigned are shared over laughter and sometimes tears.
You don’t even have to leave the building to the character of the community brought fully to life. Neighborhood Village proudly displays handmade submissions for a variety of competitions. The kids’ booth shows hand-painted canvases, intricately built LEGO sets and homemade jewelry. In the corner you can witness hand-knitted and crocheted masterpieces that would make even the most talented sewers go green with envy.
Walk a bit further and you’ll see a display of elaborately cooked, constructed and decorated cakes. The love put into each recipe evident with every whimsical fondant flower and stroke of icing. A row of homemade sweets, jams and other delectables line the back wall. Many of the submissions could easily belong in best selling cookbook.
Grandmothers point out their submissions to their grandkids and tell stories of coming here with their own parents. Children excitedly push their faces close toward the glass to see if their hard work earned them a colorful ribbon. Yes, you can hop on a thrilling ride at the festival or sit down for a relaxing show. However, if you want to capture the very soul of Plant City, make sure you take a moment walk the rows of Neighborhood Village.
However, if you’re looking for a more active escape, I feel like the answer lies on the opposite end of the festival in the ag buildings. If you can only watch one show, I highly recommend you choose to plan your trip around either the Dairy Costume Ball or the Lamb Costume Contest. On March 7, youth will dress up their best dairy cow and parade them into the Patterson Co. Livestock Arena at 12:30 p.m. In the past we’ve seen Moobacca and Han Solo, an Einstein cow, a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and even a chef with “a bun in the oven.”
The sheep have their moment on the runway the next day. The Lamb costume contest is also at the Patterson Co. Livestock arena and begins at 7 p.m. March 8. Youth grab their best lamb companion and commit to unique themes. Some are dressed as strawberries, others are shimmering fish that are running away from a determined fisher. The uniqueness of each entry as well as the hilarity that often ensues makes each of these a must-see.
When I’m not here to work, my top priority is to eat. I’m not gonna lie. And we’ve written plenty about food elsewhere in this guide, so I’ll go further down my list.
I enjoy watching the animal shows here. I love the livestock costume contests as much as Breanne does, but I’m a sportswriter by trade and I like to see some action in my shows, too. Needless to say, I’m always up for the Robinson’s Racing Pigs shows. Cute critters, an athletic contest and free admission? Sign me up.
The festival has booked some solid family-friendly magic acts and I always like to stop to watch when I’m walking by one of them. And after going down a YouTube rabbit hole for magic shows in the last few months (thanks, algorithm), I’m here for Scott’s World of Magic, too.
When I want to beat the heat, I like to go in the armory building and check out the art contest submissions. I’ve seen some crazy talented artists’ work in there over the years. This year’s show will be a little different as a showcase for Hillsborough County Public Schools Area 6 students’ work, but I’m just as excited to see what’s on display in the building this time around.
I also believe that if you want to understand why the strawberry is such a big deal here, you have to go to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association’s setup. You can’t miss it — it’s the miniature strawberry field with farming equipment on site. They can and will tell you everything you could ever want to know about strawberries and the industry. Plus, it’s got some of the best photo opportunities you’ll find anywhere on the grounds.
And if you’re really tempted to push the limits of what your body can do, there are always the eating contests. I did the strawberry shortcake eating contest in 2014, my first year on the Observer staff, and it was as delicious as it was physically painful afterward.